Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dulcimer Professor: David Schnaufer

Regular riders on the Bus know that I have a special affection for the more obscure instruments. The other day we heard some wonderful dulcimer music from Nettie Presnell. The dulcimer, like the Autoharp, is one of those instruments that one can learn to play a song on in a couple of hours. This feature is both a blessing and a curse. Both were designed to be affordable, easy to learn instruments, sold at a time when music was a homemade. Both were popular at homes in the rural Appalachians, although neither gained a very wide appeal.

While it's true that anyone can make music with a dulcimer within minutes of picking one up, it takes a lifetime to master.

David Schnaufer was one of the few to truly master this nearly-forgotten instrument. Schnaufer was born and raised along the Gulf Coast in Texas. As a kid he played harmonica and jaw harp while listening to the hard-core country music of Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Bob Wills. He had no ambitions to be a professional musician until he attended a four night series of concerts by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris at Houston’s Liberty Hall. After that experience he knew he had to play something with strings. He tried both the Autoharp and guitar without success. Then one day in an Austin music shop he found a beautiful sounding dulcimer and bought it.

David learned to play and experiment with styles and strums. After ten months of intense practice he entered the National Dulcimer Championships at Winfield, Kansas. He won first place! He moved to West Virginia and studied Old Time music under some of the best practitioners for four years. His next move was to Nashville, where he came to be a popular session man, recording with a wide range of artists. David Schnaufer's magical dulcimer appears on albums by Cyndi Lauper, Johnny & June Carter Cash, Mark O'Connor, and The Judds. He was one of only four musicians invited to play at the 25th wedding anniversary of June and Johnny Cash (The other three were Charley Pride, Bill Monroe and Norman Blake).

His knowledge of the dulcimer also gained him notoriety. He published papers with the Tennessee Historical Society and in 1995 joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music as Adjunct Associate Professor of Dulcimer where he headed a program of historical research as well as musicianship.

David Schnaufer died this past August at the age of 53, after a battle with cancer.
What he accomplished, both musically and culturally, as a champion of this obscure American instrument is amazing.

David Schnaufer - Here Comes The Sun.mp3

David Schnaufer - San Antonio Rose.mp3

David Schnaufer - Blue Moon Of Kentucky.mp3


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed glad to hear your feeling better.. This is a good way to end the week good choices.
The Dulcimer or Autoharp you cant go wrong.. Have a great weekend


September 22, 2006 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

These are great, Ed. What a beautiful sound & mixed with a Friday... this should be a good day!

Good to know you're on the mend; especially since I'll be at Hopeless next week. My guess is it was what you mixed with the tea. Have a good weekend Dear.

September 22, 2006 8:51 AM  
Blogger Woodshed said...

These tracks are gorgeous. I must admit I never even thought of the dulcimer as an instrument until I heard Schnaufer. There's a great video of him with Emmylou Harris on YouTube.

And there's this guy who seems to fancy himself as the Eddie Van Halen of the dulcimer. Not sure it works.

September 22, 2006 3:02 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Woodshed - That is what I meant about the simplicity of the dulcimer being it's blessing and it's curse. Like the Autoharp, the dulcimer is often dismissed as something less than an instrument. In the right hands it is a wonderful and versital, uniquely American instrument.

The Emmylou Harris video is from a Public Television production that gets rebroadcast during membership drives.

Your link to the "Eddie Van Halen of the dulcimer" is from a show hosted by Robert Force, an excellent dulcimer player also. Like you, I'm not sure Quintin Stephens' Django Reinhardt hammering technique works for me, but it is good to see folks experimenting and keeping the dulcimer alive.

As usual, thanks for the thought provoking feedback. It's always good to hear from you.


September 22, 2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger pineyflatwoodsgirl said...

This is very sweet, Ed. What a nice picture of David.

September 23, 2006 7:21 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thank you. The photo is by Neil Brake at the Vanderbuilt Register.

September 23, 2006 7:39 AM  

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